Passport gender designations are mandated, but what purpose are they serving?
In its continuing attempts to differentiate itself from our neighbours to the south, the Canadian government has recently issued two good news stories for queer and trans* communities.
Back in May, I wrote about Chechen authorities rounding up gay and bisexual men in that region. A quick recap: after a Russian gay rights group applied for pride parade permits across the country in order to collect rejection letters to form the basis of a human rights complaint, officials in Chechnya responded by arresting hundreds of men.
They were subsequently detained in makeshift detention centres and subjected to torture in order to reveal the identities of other gay and bisexual men. At the time, I noted that other than a strongly worded letter, the Canadian government had not taken much action, and I was not alone in calling for them to do more.
Good news: they listened! News broke last week that the Canadian government has been working in secret with a number of human rights organizations to offer asylum to gay men fleeing Chechnya. One of those organizations is Rainbow Railroad, a Toronto-based agency whose mission is to help LGBT people find safe haven from state-sanctioned persecution. They have been working with the Russian LGBT Network who is providing safe houses for those who has escaped from Chechen authorities while Rainbow Railroad handles the evacuations to Canada. Rainbow Railroad has been back-channeling with the federal government to help place individuals in government assisted refugee programs (although no one is saying just how involved the feds are with this program). According to the CBC, Edmonton’s own Randy Boissonnault was involved with the initial conversations. So far, Rainbow Railroad has negotiated safe travel for 35 individuals; the CBC reports there are at least 40 more waiting to leave Russia. If you want to support this work, check out www.rainbowrailroad.ca.
Secondly, the federal government announced last month that Canadians now have the option of using an “X” (unspecified) to designate gender on our passports. We join a handful of other countries that also offer this option (ranging from Denmark to Pakistan), but are the first in this half of the world to do so.
I am cautiously optimistic about this news: on the one hand, I think actions that help bureaucracies move past the gender binary are great and there should be more of them. However, this change doesn’t begin to solve the other identification issues trans* and non-binary folks face, let alone the myriad other institutional barriers that exist.
This change also doesn’t mean that other jurisdictions have to recognize an unspecified gender designation; the Immigration and Citizenship website warns that entry into another country is not guaranteed. In countries without rigorous human rights protections, an “X” on a passport might be a flag for harassment.
I wonder though: why do we need a gender designation on our passports? Yes, it is mandated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), but what purpose does it serve? Passports are separate from “Vital Statistics,” and an “M” or “F” doesn’t tell you anything about what to expect from the passport holder.
In this age of biometric data, gender designations just seem archaic and nonsensical. So, assuming that getting the ICAO to change this policy will take some time, what would it mean for Canada to issue everyone an “X?” Or, barring that, for all of us cisgender folks to sign up for one? The more border control agents get used to seeing an “X” on a passport, the safer everyone will be.